In an interview with Studs Terkel in December of 1961, James Baldwin is quoted saying “… education demands a certain daring, a certain independence of mind. You have to teach some people to think; and in order to teach some people to think, you have to teach them to think about everything. There mustn’t be something they cannot think about. If there is one thing they cannot think about, very shortly they can’t think about anything.”
It’s in these lines that my mind brightens and reflects.
It feels entirely clear, achingly so, that I am a writer. It’s not that I want to be a writer. It’s just that I am. I have been constantly coming into my skin in this craft; always questioning, repeatedly thinking, reviewing the world several times over to find wonder and possibility. In a world where some things go unquestioned, I am constantly asking “why?” or “so what?”
I’ve always felt called to write. It’s an exploration of the world and how I fit into it, how we all fit into it, both regarding and disregarding rules and models and theories, and using the map of the territory that those before us drew so we can learn how to draw our own maps.
I knew I had to write when I was in the 11th grade. We had to take elective courses that rotated every 10 weeks or so. I mindlessly signed up for Creative Writing with Mrs. Fields during the second rotation; there weren’t any spots left in aviation and there are only so many gym courses I can take in the span of a year.
On the first day, we watched Def Poetry Jam with Mos Def. (See here or here or here for good examples.) I was immediately mesmerized by the way in which words could be used, how language could be bent and twisted to tell stories, how brevity says more than every single detail of a story sometimes, but also how prose can paint the most vivid picture of who and what and how. By the second week, I knew I had to write. I didn’t want to, I had to.
Over the course of the semester, we learned the different forms of creative writing. From fiction to poetry to memoir to creative nonfiction, we learned to cultivate in ourselves a sense of expression of the things we’ve always carried with us. We weaved quickly, methodically, and defiantly through the work of creative writers—old to new, new to ourselves, back to old again—and we wrote all the while. We kept journals and talked widely about how this writing changed us, how it made us feel.
One of the final assignments was to write a monologue that would be read at an assembly in front of the rest of class and other guests. On stage.
Just at the thought of writing something and speaking it out loud in front of others brought me a particular kind of fear. I was young and so hyper-aware of what everyone else thought about me that I couldn’t fathom others actually spending some of their time and energy with me in that space.
The days leading up to the assembly, I flip-flopped on what I wanted to write about. I wasn’t confident in topics. Asking for further clarity on the assignment, Mrs. Fields said,
“Whatever you write, it must be true to you. Nobody else but you.”
Not knowing how to respond, I thanked her and walked away feeling defeated. I thought Mrs. Fields didn’t get me; she didn’t understand how shy or painfully unconfident I was in my own abilities. I was sure of it.
I sat at home and opened up to a blank page in my composition notebook. Still not knowing what to say, what to write, what to think, I felt as if writing was an enemy that I’ll never catch; always elusive, always running, never my own.
What I came to realize in the years following this assignment was that I was so afraid what people would think of me because I knew that if I wrote it down, it meant it was real in a way. It cemented my words in the minds of others as “This is Robbie. This is who he is.” Even more, it meant that people would begin to see me—the real me, the one I’d kept covered all the years leading up to the 11th grade.
The day came for us to speak our words into existence. The night before, I sat in front of a blank page and nothing came out. I stared at the lines, felt their neatness, labored over their impossibilities so much so that I slammed my notebook shut. Frustrated, I took a deep breath. I thought about the assignment. “It must be true to you. Nobody else but you.”
I opened my notebook and poured myself into the pages. Line after line, page after page, I wrote what I knew to be true. That I was awkward and lanky; that I didn’t know how to fit into my body; that I often felt broken and as if I didn’t fit in; that I was unlovable and uninspired and lacking conviction; that I was just a boy who didn’t know how to become a man; that I felt too much, too deeply, too often; that I’ve struggled with who I was, who I am, and who I wanted to be; and so on and so on and so on.
I closed my notebook, put my pencil down, and rubbed my eyes. I don’t think I got an hour of sleep that night.
I considered not going to school at all the next morning. I don’t need a grade. I’ll just take a zero for the assignment and I’ll move on. It won’t matter the next week, it’s only an elective class. Who cares about elective classes? Not me. But still, I went.
The time came. Our class collectively walked to the auditorium and sat in silence as we awaited further instruction from Mrs. Fields. I clutched my notebook close. I hadn’t reread any of the night before’s words, let alone any editing. A couple of my classmates went first. There was a stage with a couch in the middle in case we wanted to sit.
A few of my classmates went first. They spoke of great big things like what inspires them, their life stories, the way they overcame obstacles, and who was most important to them. They spoke about the lives they were going to live, the people they wanted to impact, how much they wanted to give back to the city of Flint that we all called home.
My name was called. Feeling numb, I stumbled my way up to the stage, notebook in hand. I tapped the microphone and looked into the crowd. It felt out-of-body to stand there, all eyes on me, hands shaking. My skin crawled away from me in ways I hadn’t known before. Just before I opened my notebook, I vowed to never read anything in front of anyone ever again.
But then I performed. My voice shook. I was unsteady, afraid. One line after another, the words tumbled off of my tongue. I was jagged and zig-zagging, my words knew no bounds. I held onto momentum as I reminded myself “This will all be over soon. This will all be over soon. This will all be over soon.”
And then came the last line.
Then applause. Unsure of why or how, I walked quickly back to my seat, face red from exhaustion and exhilaration and embarrassment.
Slowly creeping into me was a sense of achievement. It was the first time I felt like I belonged to a community of people. The first time I felt as if my words mattered. The first time I felt heard. It’s a feeling not easily captured all these years after, though I can still feel the fire inside of me from that day.
I often think of Mrs. Fields and what she said to me. I think of how, in hindsight, she did the very best thing a teacher could do: she led me back to myself again. Gave me a reason to look within. Gave me a reason. A reason.
This marked the first thought of a much longer journey in understanding that writing is something I was never going to be able to run from. Nine years later, I’m finally able to put a period at the end of that journey and start a new one.
Wanting to write and being a writer are two distinctly different things. I write because I am called to do so by something greater than myself—the world, maybe, and all of what I see from where I’m standing. I may never know by what I’m being called, only that it is true that I’m being called.
I’m constantly reminded of Baldwin’s words these days. Education, as he would say, creates a sense of independence of mind. Writing, too, does this. In the same way that nobody can think my thoughts but me, writing allows the writer to dare to be bold and original, reinventing the stale and creating anew on top of the boulders built by those before us. A professor of mine once said “We don’t know everything, but we want to know more.”
A writer doesn’t know everything. But a writer does want to know more. There are existences that each writer gets to write themselves into, whether that be inward or outward (or both).
For me, I write to remember. To have a better understanding of what it means to carve out spaces where we can show others who we are. To learn how to ask better questions. To breathe a little deeper, steep myself into the idea that we can learn to love people better every day. To be a better storyteller. To create maps—informed by maps that came before—and fall into a rhythm that only I can know, but that I can learn to show others.
I don’t yet know the story that I’m writing. Just that I’m writing something and it will be a tragedy of sorts—all other genres mixed in, but, at the end of the day, we are all tragedies waiting to happen. We are born and constructed for every moment of struggle, rich or poor, sickness and health, married to the experience of becoming. This is part of our fabric of being no matter how much we don’t want to admit it, no matter how far we try to run from it.
What I do know about this story is that, with every step, I’m lost in thought. Never knowing everything but always wanting to know more. Always folding things over and stretching them to their capacities, always shaking and shifting things to see them differently, bound by the idea that seeing something requires more than resting my eyes on it.
This is why I must write. I must explore and figure. I must learn and read and rap on every closed door I come across. I must worry and wonder. I must use my voice and change. I must edit and rewrite. This isn’t a matter of recreation or hobby, this is a matter of continuing my existence.
The day I stop writing is the day I’ve stopped thinking about everything. It’s the day I’ve stopped living. Among the vast majority of things I don’t know and will not know, this is what I know to be true.